Taiwan has a long, painful history with personal names.
During the Japanese occupation, those who didn't take a Japanese name were discriminated against, while patriotic names were encouraged during the martial law era. Indigenous Taiwanese were long forced to use non-native names and even today can’t use the romanized spelling of their full names on their identity cards if they are “too long.”
When it comes to names used to face the outside world, the government issues passports using a bastardized version of Wade-Giles romanization. This means on overseas paperwork they are forced to use their government-assigned names.
However, aside from the paperwork, adult Taiwanese are free to choose whatever English name or romanized version of their name they choose. This has opened the door wide to immense variety and creativity that attests to the thoughtful, and sometimes quirky and imaginative, individuality of Taiwanese.
To be sure, the majority don’t have any English name at all, nor do they have much use for a romanized version of their name except when they travel. It’s not something that has any impact on their lives, and it may never have even occurred to them as something to consider, especially if they are over a certain age.
In some countries, like China, the act of not choosing a “foreign” name often has strong nationalistic overtones. While this is true for some Taiwanese, it is far less often the case.
More commonly, they simply identify themselves with — and are more comfortable with — their given names. It’s rarely a self-consciously unfriendly message towards foreigners as much as it is a self-affirmation of themselves as an individual.
For some, interacting with the outside world is very important, and these Taiwanese choose to stick with a romanized version of their name. A few even make the effort to change the spelling from the default romanization assigned on their passports to make it easier for foreigners, who often mangle the pronunciation even with the best of intentions. The passports' (loosely) Wade-Giles romanizations often make it worse.
Obvious examples include President Tsai Ing-wen (instead of Tsai Ying-wen, 蔡英文), former President Ma Ying-jeou (instead of Ma Ying-chiu, 馬英九), Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (instead of Ke Wen-che, 柯文哲) and Taichung Mayor Lu Shiow-yen (instead of Lu Hsiu-yen, 盧秀燕). While these won’t preclude foreigners from bungling their names, they are improvements from the perspective of an English speaker.
Sometimes romanized names don’t appear to help with common Taiwanese-inflected Mandarin pronunciations. “Perng” (彭, as in former Central Bank head Perng Fai-nan) and “Soong” (宋, as in perennial presidential candidate James Soong) are two more commonly used ones, though both may reflect a more China-inflected pronunciation and the identity that comes with that, and often they are used by people whose families arrived from China following the civil war there.
Some use romanization to make a political statement, a legacy of the “Great Tongyong-Pinyin Wars” of the 2000s. Here's a useful trick: if you notice someone is using the Hanyu Pinyin system that is standard in China for their name, they are likely pan-blue (pro-KMT), and if they use Taiwan’s Tongyong Pinyin, they are probably pan-green (pro-DPP).
Perhaps my favorite romanized name is Broadcasting Corporation of China chair and already self-declared Kuomintang (KMT) presidential candidate for 2024, Jaw Shaw-kong. My fun theory on this particular spelling is that he was a fan of Hong Kong movies when he was a young man in the 1970s and 80s.
Others romanize their names using local languages. The “Lim” in legislator Freddy Lim’s (林昶佐) name is probably the most prominent example of using the Hoklo (Taiwanese) equivalent in place of the Mandarin “Lin,” and presidential spokesperson Kolas Yotaka uses her romanized Indigenous Amis name both internationally and locally (though some in the Chinese-language media do not respect her decision and instead use the Chinese name assigned to her).
Many choose to adopt an English name. Some simply continue to use the name given to them as students, as language students do the world over.
Quite a few choose their own. The choices they make and the reasons behind them are as varied as the Taiwanese themselves, but some common patterns do emerge.
Two of the most common are to show their friendliness by having a name that is easy for a foreigner to say and to avoid the cringe-worthy experience of hearing a foreigner absolutely butcher their name (especially for those who have lived abroad and encounter it daily). Both often go hand-in-hand, and indeed many foreigners in Taiwan — including myself — have chosen a Chinese name for the same reasons.
Another non-mutually exclusive reason is to feel more international. English names are the most commonly recognized internationally, so this makes sense.
The most exciting reason, however, is to choose a name and identity entirely of one’s own, different from the one given to them at birth. When this is the case, the choice of English name is very personal, no matter how common or unusual it is.
It isn’t unusual for people to adopt names from the people who inspire them, and they don’t necessarily need to be standard English names or even properly English at all. They could be from any number of languages, from Italian to Russian to romanized Japanese. Nor are the names always chosen from foreigners. For example, if you meet an Echo, there is a good chance this person was inspired by the writer and translator Echo Chen-ping, who wrote under the pen name Sanmao (三毛) and lived a dramatic, adventurous, and ultimately tragic life.
There are a multitude of other reasons for choosing a name, such as liking the sound of it, a similarity to their Chinese name, meaning, or even a sense of humor (such as Freddy Lim naming himself after horror movie character Freddy Krueger).
Sometimes words are chosen over what would normally be considered names. Never assume that the person doesn’t understand this; they almost certainly do, and there is usually a good reason for it, regardless of whether it sounds odd to a foreigner or not.
These may be direct translations of characters in their name, like “Bright” or “Dragon.” Though not common, once in awhile these names don’t seem to have any obvious reason, like “Nail,” “Puma,” or “Psyche,” but be sure their choice was very much intentional.
Another interesting option that some choose is a combination of a romanized name and an English one, though this seems to be more recent. Prominent examples include Foreign Minister Jaushieh Joseph Wu (吳釗燮) and KMT Chair Eric Chu Li-lun (朱立倫).
No matter what your Taiwanese friends and acquaintances have chosen, respect and find joy in however they present their own names — the reasons are often quite moving and inspiring and always personal. After all, we don’t always get the chance to choose who we are or want to be, but this is one way to make it a reality.
Courtney Donovan Smith (石東文) is a regular contributing columnist for Taiwan News, the central Taiwan correspondent for ICRT FM100 Radio News, co-publisher of Compass Magazine, co-founder of Taiwan Report (report.tw), and former chair of the Taichung American Chamber of Commerce.